Former Fair Work Commissioner joins top tier

A Fair Work Commissioner of 18 years has just accepted a consultant role in a top firm. In an exclusive interview she tells us why she had to leave the Commission, and how she’d like to make a difference

Former Fair Work Commissioner Barbara Deegan has joined Ashurst’s top-ranked Australian employment practice as a consultant after retiring as Canberra’s Fair Work Commissioner in August.

Deegan served as a Commissioner of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Commission from 1996 (and as a Commissioner of the Tasmanian Industrial Commission from 2010) to 2014. 

In an exclusive interview with Australasian Lawyer, the dedicated lady says 18 years as a commissioner had taken its toll.

“I have been working full-time since I’ve left university, which was in the 70s, and I’ve never had a break except for leave. I was starting to get very jaded with work…I thought I’d done as much as I could do,” she says.

And with intense industrial disputation looming in the ACT area due to a planned round of bargaining, Deegan didn’t think she had the strength to continue.

She’d already been through something similar a few years prior in 2011, and although the outcome was a success with very little industrial action resulting, it was a hard slog.

“The new bargaining round is due to start in this half of the year, and with very strict guidelines,” Deegan says. “I thought, ‘do I really want to go through another six months of this?’”

Weary from facing years of industrial and individual disputes (which she says can actually be the most harrowing), she wasn’t sure how much good she could have done by staying on at the Fair Work Commission, and she wasn’t keen to stay on just because she “felt she should”.

So Deegan retired. It lasted all of a month.

After a refresher, she found herself getting itchy feet again and needing mental stimulation.

“When Ashurst made me the offer, it sounded like the ideal thing for me. I get to use the skills I’ve accumulated over the past 30 years and do something useful…I thought, ‘well, I’m tired, I wouldn’t mind just using my brain and helping people for a change’.”

Deegan will support the continued development of the firm’s public sector employment practice at both a Commonwealth and State level. This will include presenting seminars and acting in an advisory capacity.
Outside of Ashurst, she’s also looking forward to providing advice to a variety of those who need it.

“What I’m trying to do is stop people going to the Commission and courts by getting it done properly in the first place, I want to cut people off before they make mistakes,” says Deegan.

“It will be terrific to be able to explain the mistakes that people have made in the past, and why they have lost or won in the Commission…It’s hard for HR people, lawyers and in-house. There have been a lot of changes in employment law in Australia over the past 30 years.”

But don’t get her wrong, Deegan enjoyed many “fantastic” years at the Fair Work Commission. In fact, she heralds being appointed as a commissioner as one of the greatest highlights of her career.

Another standout is authoring the highly-regarded independent integrity review of the 457 Visa Program, she says.

The review was commissioned by the Minister for Immigration, and was later referred to as the Deegan Commission.

“That was a major highlight and it was that which kept me going for a lot longer at the Commission that I would have...That break kept me there for another six years, it was fantastic.”

Deegan will now be based in Ashurst’s Canberra office and will work closely with partners Paul Vane-Tempest and Jon Lovell.

She’s also particularly looking forward to working again with her colleague at Fair Work Australia, former president Geoff Giudice, who also consults at Ashurst.

And now that for the first time in 30 years Deegan is not working horrendous hours each week, she can finally foresee some travel on the horizon.

But not just yet – there’s something else she’s dedicated to here in Australia.

“We’ve got a very old dog, so can’t travel at the moment,” she smiles.

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